Through a Glass Darkly

Anticipated in science fiction in the early 20th century, television was one of those signifiers of a better life in the future, and the popular press drove home that message with its breathless reporting on the latest advancements. E.B. White, on the other hand, found the latest experiment in television to be less than thrilling, maintaining prescience of mind to see things as they were, and what they might become.

Oct. 31, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In “The Talk of the Town” White wrote about the unusual demonstration of television to an audience in the B.S. Moss playhouse. They were treated to a broadcast from the Guild Theatre, just one block away.

…now to the popular press, the demonstration — contrary to White’s account — was a wonder to behold:

Modern Mechanics magazine, January 1932.

The actual product, however, had a long way to go…

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?…Top row, left to right, British adventurer Carveth Wells and actresses Theresa Helburn and Margaret Barker did their best to entertain audiences a block away via a television broadcast, but the results were more like the images on the bottom row, especially the one at right. (art-books.com/brynmawr.edu/onetuberadio.com)

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Comeback Kid

Not well known today, but in the early 20th century Maude Adams (1872-1953) was a household name; her touring productions beginning around the turn of the century made her the most popular actress in America, and she sealed that deal in 1905 when she played Peter Pan on Broadway to great acclaim. Her success continued until 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic nearly claimed her life. After recovering from the illness she retired from acting and turned her attention to making improvements in electric lighting, creating an industry standard for both stage and film. When she returned to acting in 1931, it was big news, and “The Talk of the Town” was there to tell us about it. Excerpts:

STAGING A COMEBACK…Maude Adams, left, circa 1897. At right, Adams portrayed Portia in her 1931 production of The Merchant of Venice, with Otis Skinner, who portrayed Shylock. (Pinterest/Bookmice)

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Rags to Rags

The New Yorker departed from its usual profiles of the rich, powerful and/or famous and focused instead on a “Bowery Bum” named John McGoorty. Also unusual was the profile’s author, Russel Crouse, better known then and now and as an American playwright and librettist. Appropriately, Reginald Marsh lent his “Ashcan School” style to the illustration. Here are some excerpts:

NOT MUCH TO SMILE ABOUT…Berenice Abbott photograph of a Bowery restaurant in 1935, when the street was lined with flophouses. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with some lovely color ads…the makers of the gasoline additive Ethyl (active ingredient, lead) continued their series of nature-themed ads…

…while Budweiser, perhaps anticipating the end of Prohibition, reminded readers of the refreshing flavor of its beer, even if it was non-alcoholic…

…R.J. Reynolds reminded women smokers that their Camel cigarettes left no after-taste…

…while Lorillard went a step further and claimed its Old Gold brand made a smoker downright kissable…

…the makers of Pepperell Peeress sheets and pillowcases offered this “Talk of the Town” parody to promote their wares…

…illustrator Frank McIntosh, known for his Art Deco travel drawings, (and who contributed just four drawings to the New Yorker), gave us this stylish illustration for Guillaume Lenthéric’s famed parfums

New Yorker cartoonist/illustrator H.O. Hofman contributed this drawing on behalf of the Artists and Writers Guild, offering their designer bridge cards…

…and speaking of bridge, we have Alan Dunn opening our cartoons…

…and in a less refined setting, we have this from Raymond Thayer, another contributor of just four drawings to the New Yorker…

…and this entry from Carl Rose reminds us of where we are in history, namely the Depression…

James Thurber continued his exploration of the mysterious encounters between the sexes…

…and we end with Alice Harvey, and one unlikely play date…

Next Time: A Stage of Woes…

The Art of Peace

In July of 1928, war was officially banned from the earth. Or so it was hoped when the Kellogg–Briand Pact became effective on July 24, 1929.

Aug. 3, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

Also known as the “Pact of Paris” and more officially the “General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,” its authors, United States Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand, gathered world powers in Paris on Aug. 28, 1928 to sign a treaty that denounced the use of war and called for the peaceful settlement of all future disputes. The New Yorker, in the opening “Notes and Comment” section of “The Talk of the Town,” took its usual “What, Me Worry?” approach to world affairs, finding the whole thing unnecessary given that (in its view) Europe was already a peaceful, even benign continent:

GIVE PEACE A CHANCE…French foreign minister Aristide Briand, Myron T. Herrick (U.S. ambassador to France), and U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg meet in the French Foreign Office for the signing of the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, August 1928; at right, Briand speaking to the assembly. (NYTimes/Wikipedia)

In January 1929 the U.S. Senate officially ratified the Kellogg–Briand Pact with a nearly unanimous vote, 85-1. John James Blaine, senator from Wisconsin, cast the lone dissenting vote (although four years later Blaine would author another piece of legislation that would have a much greater impact, at least at the time: the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition).

SURE, WHY NOT?…The U.S. Senate approved the Kellogg–Briand Pact on Jan. 15, 1929. The treaty went into effect later that year on July 24. (NYTimes)

Another item in “The Talk of the Town” made further reference to the pact…

…and Howard Brubaker, in his column “Of All Things,” made special mention of the Sino-Soviet border conflict in referencing the pact:

Brubaker mockingly suggested that the pact marked the beginning of a thousand years of peace, an inadvertently prescient remark considering that in less than four years Hitler would seize power in Germany and announce the beginning of his “Thousand Year Reich” — which we know was quite the opposite of peace. Brubaker was also off the mark with this crude observation:

Just two years after Brubaker wrote those words, Japan would invade Manchuria. And only a decade would pass before Germany and Russia would invade Poland and ignite the biggest war of all time.

PARTY POOPERS…The New Yorker wasn’t alone in poking fun at the Kellogg–Briand Pact. At left, the pact is mocked during the Paris Carnaval in 1929; at right, British cartoonist Sidney Conrad Strube reminded readers of the outcome of America’s earlier efforts at world peace. (Wikipedia/Pinterest) click to enlarge.
WE JUST CAME TO SAY HELLO…Germany, the first signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact banning all war, invaded Poland just 10 years after that treaty went into effect. Above, German troops parade through Warsaw after the invasion, September 28-30, 1939. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Although the pact was ridiculed for its perceived naïveté, and for the fact that it did not prevent the largest war in human history, some modern scholars see otherwise. Political scientists Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro observed (in 2017) that the pact “catalyzed the human rights revolution, enabled the use of economic sanctions as a tool of law enforcement, and ignited the explosion in the number of international organizations that regulate so many aspects of our daily lives.” In his recent book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker notes “virtually every acre of land that was conquered after 1928 has been returned to the state that lost it. Frank Kellogg and Aristide Briand may deserve the last laugh.”

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Gallows Humor

Other items in “The Talk of Town” included this brief anecdote, which I doubt many would find humorous today:

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On The Bowery

In the “Reporter at Large” column, Niven Busch Jr. paid a visit to “The Yellow Bowery,” as the piece was titled. Notable in this article (and in Brubaker’s quip above) is the use of term “Chinaman,” a term considered offensive today but in the 1920s was used indiscriminately for East Asians. In the following excerpts, the term seems pejorative:

THE BLOODY ANGLE…Clockwise, from top, this bend in Chinatown’s Doyer Street was known as “The Bloody Angle” due to the numerous killings among the Tong gangs that lasted into the 1930s. Hatchets were a popular weapon of choice, leading to the creation of the expression, “hatchet man”; another perspective of Doyer Street from 1932; the street was also the site of the first Chinese language theater in New York City. (boweryboyshistory.com/Museum of the City of New York/Wikipedia)

Busch’s piece was rife with stereotypes…

…and referenced the unsolved Bowery murder of 19-year-old Elsie Sigel, a missionary in Chinatown who was found strangled inside a trunk in 1909…

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS…2 Doyer Street was the address of the Chinese Tuxedo Restaurant. It attracted non-Chinese patrons, particularly those who considered themselves ‘Bohemians’ as well as businessmen looking for an ‘exotic’ night on the town. And it helped that the Tuxedo was near the elevated train. (Courtesy Flickr/straatis/thelodownny.com)

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It Grows on You

The rapid demolition of old New York was a recurring theme in the New Yorker of the 1920s, the magazine often wavering between nostalgia and the thrill of the new. No place was perhaps more sacred than the stately row houses of Washington Square. When news circulated that a section consisting of the old Rhinelander mansion would soon fall (for the sake of a new apartment building), “Talk” tried its best to process the change:

IT LOOMS, BUT WE GOT USED TO IT…The New Yorker once resented the intrusion of the One Fifth Avenue building (built in 1927), looming above the cobbles of the early 19th century Washington Mews. (newyorkitecture.com/Viola Mai, Washington Square News)
MIND THE GAP…Clockwise, from top, just east of this row of houses stood the mansion of William Rhinelander; although the New Yorker noted that its demolition was imminent in 1929, the mansion stood until 1951, when it was demolished and replaced by the 20-story 2 Fifth Avenue; next to the gap between the old row houses and the apartment stands the Roger Shattuck House, No. 19 Washington Square North. The Shattuck House was the scene of one of most sensational robberies in the city’s history—in 1922. (nyc-architecture.com/Google Maps)

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Old Boy

In one of my recent posts (Not Your Grandpa’s Tammany Hall) I noted a “Talk” item that described the new Tammany headquarters. In the August 3 issue the magazine introduced the patriotic society’s new leader, John Francis Curry, in a profile written by Henry F. Pringle. In the piece, titled “Local Boy Makes Good,” Pringle suggested that Curry’s old-fashioned approach to politics stood in contrast to the new image Tammany Hall was attempting to project:

Curry’s tenure would end abruptly in 1934 — the first Tammany boss to be booted out by his own followers. Curry made some bad decisions during a time when the political winds were shifting away from machine politics. It was under his leadership that Tammany backed Al Smith over the reform-minded Franklin Roosevelt for the 1932 Democratic presidential nomination. That same year, Tammany-backed New York Mayor Jimmy Walker would be forced from office amid scandal.

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Well, She Didn’t Write the Script

We all know Greta Garbo as one of the greatest film stars of classic Hollywood. Her mysterious aura and subtlety of expression are still lauded by film critics today. The New Yorker, however, never seemed particularly enamored of the star’s performances. Here is a review of her 1929 silent film, The Single Standard:

THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE…Little Wally Albright played Greta Garbo’s son in The Single Standard. We just saw four-year-old Wally in my last post, in which he also appeared as Peggy Wood’s son in Wonder of Women. Apparently when a director needed a cute, curly head kid, they went for Wally—he appeared in seven films in 1929 alone. (Rotten Tomatoes)

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From Our Advertisers

Our first advertisement (image at right) is from the back pages of the Aug. 3 issue. It announced the opening of Long Island’s Atlantic Beach Club, which featured the entertainment of Rudy Vallée and his orchestra…

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? Images, top to bottom, aerial view of The Atlantic Beach Club; Rudy Vallée performing with emblematic megaphone, 1929; postcard image of the Nautilus Hotel on the Boardwalk of Atlantic Beach, Long Island. (longbeachlibrary.org/YouTube)

…a brand-new car—The Ruxton— was introduced to New Yorker readers in this color advertisement that spanned four pages (click image to enlarge)…

…produced in 1929-30 by the New Era Motors company of New York, the car was marketed for its innovative front-wheel drive and its distinctive low profile (a feat accomplished by eliminating the drive shaft to the rear wheels). While most cars in the late 1920s had an average height of 6 feet (1.8 meters); the Ruxton was less than 4 and half feet (1.3 meters) high. Producers of the car hoped to sell the rights of the Ruxton to an established car manufacturer. Moon Motors of St. Louis built just 96 of the cars during regular production (from June to October, 1930) before the whole deal fell apart…

SHORT RUN…Clockwise, from top left, Ruxton logo affixed to grille; dancer Rita La Roy poses with her Ruxton, 1930; some models sported Joseph Urban color schemes designed to lengthen the appearance of the car. (allcarcentral.com/Pinterest/hemmings.com)

…if you were one of the fortunate few to own a Ruxton, you might take it for a spin on the Lincoln Highway…or maybe not. Despite the appearance of this ad, a fully paved, transcontinental highway was still an incomplete dream in 1929. Although sections of the road were quite smooth from New York to Omaha, further west things could get a bit bumpy, especially on the unpaved stretches. However, as the ad claims, what really made the road viable was the availability of regularly spaced gas stations along the way…

…I liked this ad just for its sheer complexity…

…and then we have this ad from Saks, which somehow conflated new shoes and an intimate encounter with Aphrodite.,,

…on to our cartoonists, we have Helen Hokinson’s observations at “Old Narragansett…

…while out to sea, Alan Dunn found humor in a sensitive swabbie…

Alice Harvey observed those still skeptical of human flight…

Perry Barlow peeked in on a moonstruck woman…

…and finally, I. Klein visited an antique shop…

Next Time: The Last Summer…